Cognitive science research: Steering Soldiers in the right direction

Dr. Tad Brunyé (right) and Breanne Hawes, U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center Cognitive Science Team, examine brain hemodynamic and electroencephalography results for a study examining the brain signatures of mental workload during virtual navigation research (U.S. Army photo by David Kamm).

Dr. Tad Brunyé (right) and Breanne Hawes, U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center Cognitive Science Team, examine brain hemodynamic and electroencephalography results for a study examining the brain signatures of mental workload during virtual navigation research (U.S. Army photo by David Kamm).

By Jane Benson, NSRDEC Public Affairs

Soldiers face special challenges during navigation. Their jobs are physically demanding. They are often under extreme stress, and they often need to make quick decisions in an ever-changing and sometimes dangerous environment. They may be cold, hot, hungry or tired. All of these factors can affect the ability to make wise navigation decisions.

Army researchers use virtual reality to test to test Soldiers and discover influences on choices people make when choosing a route.

Dr. Tad Brunyé, a member of the Cognitive Science Team at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, investigates spatial and non-spatial influences on Soldier navigation choices.

“This type of knowledge will help optimize Soldier performance,” Brunyé said. “Soldiers also show reliable biases in memory for landmark locations due to the emotional nature of events that transpired at that location.”

Spatial influences pertain to things in an actual space, such as topography, local and distant landmarks, or the position of the sun. Non-spatial influences are a little harder to define and can include a Soldier’s emotional state, level of stress, mission and task demands, skills, abilities, traits, and his or her past experience in a geographical area, all of which can affect navigational choices.

“We are still trying to identify and characterize the full range of spatial and non-spatial influences and how they interact with emerging representations of experienced environments,” Brunyé said. “We all have our current mental states. So, you may see the same landmarks as I do, you may see the same topography that I do, but I might be in a very different state that leads me to interpret and use that same information in very different ways.

Virtual reality capabilities, including head-mounted display systems, have revolutionized cognitive science research by allowing Soldiers to get engaged in visual worlds, scenarios and tasks that accurately emulate aspects of operational experience while maintaining important experimental controls.

“As part of our goal to understand, predict, and optimize navigation behavior, we have leveraged virtual reality research and technologies to advance the state of the art in spatial cognition research and gain new insights into the brain mechanisms, strategies, and biases that Soldiers use when selecting routes, learning new environments, and solving complex problems,” he said. “By better understanding and predicting Soldier spatial behavior we can identify, prioritize, and optimize technological capabilities to fill gaps in Soldier knowledge to support flexible spatial behavior without overburdening perceptual, attentive, or cognitive resources.”

Individual cognitive abilities and individual personalities can also affect navigation choices. Brunyé has found that good navigators tend to be more open to new experiences and are less anxious than poor navigators.

“How confident do I feel in my environment? Is there a history of enemy activity? Are there certain areas I want to avoid? Are there certain safe spots that I want to keep in mind? There is always interplay between what you sense in the environment, what you perceive, what you know, what you predict will occur, and ultimately how you act.”

There are also misperceptions that influence navigation choices. One of the key discoveries made by Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center researchers is that many people will choose a route that goes south because they equate going south with going downhill. They perceive a southern route as easier than a northern route, which they equate with going uphill. This incorrect assumption can lead to less than optimal navigation choices.

“This finding has been coined the ‘north-is-up’ heuristic, and has been replicated in not only the USA, but also in Bulgaria, Italy, and the Netherlands,” Brunyé said.

Moreover, Brunyé said that right-handed people tend to prefer making right turns. Left-handed people prefer going left, and most people will chose a route that is straight initially, even if it curves and becomes suboptimal later in the journey.

“At this stage of our research we are tasked with understanding and quantifying the conditions under which various heuristics and behaviors emerge, and how they might interact with one another to guide navigation behavior,” Brunyésaid.

By studying and monitoring people’s choices in navigation (through non-intrusive devices and methods) and by observing patterns of physiology and neurophysiology, Brunyé is developing ways to predict behavior and optimize navigation performance. The goal is to incorporate his observations into Soldier training, providing Soldiers with concrete tips for becoming better navigators in a variety of situations. In addition to training, Brunyé is exploring redesigning tasks and support technologies to better match individual and contextually guided Soldier capabilities and limitations.

The team is also investigating stimulating areas of the brain with low-current, electrical charges. Brunyé said that the low-current charges have been shown to help some poor navigators become better navigators, but the charges do little to help those who are already competent navigators. Brunyé pointed out that brain stimulation could also ultimately be used to accelerate learning or help Soldiers overcome barriers to flexible performance, such as fear, anxiety or lack of confidence.

“Being a scientist at NSRDEC affords working on a wide range of impactful research programs that result in innovative technological solutions for optimizing Soldier cognition and action,” Brunyé said. “This project has been particularly rewarding given its direct fit with my training and expertise, and its direct relevance to a real-world problem space.”

The research is expected to have a major impact in the future.

“The knowledge garnered from this research could ultimately affect military strategy, including predicting which way an enemy will go,” Brunyé said. “The research also could help predict the movement of friendly personnel who are disoriented or lost. By understanding the way the mind works, we can make some predictions about what people are going to do when they are lost or isolated. This knowledge will help improve survivability and mission effectiveness.”


This article appears in the May/June 2015 issue of Army Technology Magazine, which focuses on Future Computing. The magazine is available as an electronic download, or print publication. The magazine is an authorized, unofficial publication published under Army Regulation 360-1, for all members of the Department of Defense and the general public.

The Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to develop technology and engineering solutions for America’s Soldiers.

RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command. AMC is the Army’s premier provider of materiel readiness–technology, acquisition support, materiel development, logistics power projection and sustainment–to the total force, across the spectrum of joint military operations. If a Soldier shoots it, drives it, flies it, wears it, eats it or communicates with it, AMC provides it.